Zimbabwe’s absence at Cricket World Cup ‘bitter pill to swallow’

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The 32-year-old Makota grew up playing cricket in Mutare, his hometown in Zimbabwe. He had already saved up for the trip before the qualification rounds had finished.

Zimbabwe played in every edition of the World Cup since 1983… until now [Nigel Marple/Reuters]

Harare, Zimbabwe – When aircraft engineer Gerald Makota left his job in Abu Dhabi for another in Ireland last January, he was excited at the prospect of flying into England to watch his native Zimbabwe at the 2019 Cricket World Cup.

Zimbabwe had played in every edition of the ICC World Cup since 1983 and Makota didn’t see anything changing.

But when the World Cup opened in England end of May, it was a depressing reminder for Makota that Zimbabwe had missed out on qualification.

“I dropped all my plans to be in England when we failed to score those crucial three runs versus the UAE [in the must-win qualifier] ,” Makota told Al Jazeera from the Irish town of Shannon.

“It’s a bitter pill to swallow that this will be the first time in my life not seeing Zimbabwe at the World Cup. That the failure to qualify leaves a massive dent on the game in our country. The huge financial rewards that come with participation will deprive the game in Zimbabwe of oxygen.”

Prior to this tournament in England, Zimbabwe qualified directly for the World Cup since the 1999 edition by virtue of being a Test-playing nation.

But with this year’s tournament being reduced to a 10-team competition, a qualification system involving the lowest-placed teams on the rankings table and the second-tier sides of international cricket was introduced.

For Gary Brent, the bowler who played for Zimbabwe at the 2007 World Cup, failure to qualify was a “massive disappointment” but the country could emerge stronger from the wreckage. Brent’s former teammate Bryan Strang, however, doesn’t share that optimism.

“Did we deserve to eat at the top table,” asked Strang. “I guess not going to the World Cup is something to do with karma. It’s hard to produce fruits when the intentions are wrong. It seems the vision was lost and not being at the World Cup was almost inevitable.”

It is feared that the failure to qualify for the World Cup could have a negative effect on public interest and growth of cricket in Zimbabwe. The qualifiers last year, where Zimbabwe were doing well until the fateful game against the United Arab Emirates (UAE), were watched by unprecedented crowds.

Almost all the games at the four venues in Harare and Bulawayo, even those involving neutral teams, had a packed house.

For Ali Shah, who represented Zimbabwe in three World Cups, pay issues and a weakened club cricket system are the main reasons behind the debacle.

“You can’t play cricket at the highest level without a good club cricket system. When club cricket in Zimbabwe died, the national team died. Cricket started going down in this country when the administration abandoned club cricket,” said Shah.

“Money isn’t being channelled towards the development of the game. We’ve been talking about increasing the player base, but only a handful of cricketers in the national team are being paid. How do you continue playing when you are not getting anything from the game?

“It’s sad, but we have to accept the reality that we are no longer a top side.”

Zimbabwe’s penultimate qualifying tie at Harare Sports Club against the West Indies, in which the hosts could have sealed qualification with a game to spare, was watched by almost 10,000 spectators.

For the must-win game against the UAE, around 17,000 people, the biggest crowd ever seen at a cricket match in the country, thronged the same venue. The noisy and partisan home crowd – expecting nothing but a win for the ticket to the World Cup – watched in horror as the Zimbabwean side crumbled to a three-run defeat.

“Losing to a lowly ranked side UAE added insult to injury,” said Geoff Guwakuwa, a Zimbabwe supporter. “It’s every cricket fan’s dream to watch their team compete at the biggest stage. It’s going to be difficult to enjoy the tournament.”

Following the debacle, Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC) degenerated into chaos with the administration sacking coach Heath Streak, captain Graeme Cremer and chief selector Tatenda Taibu.

Zimbabwe, who are often in dire financial straits and had to resort to an ICC-structured funding plan to alleviate their cash situation, will be left poorer without the windfall of the World Cup.

It’s sad, but we have to accept the reality that we are no longer a top side.

Ali Shah, Zimbabwean cricketer

Requested to outline the way forward for the game in the country, as well as revealing how much Zimbabwe is poised to lose financially due to the World Cup blow, ZC chairman Tavengwa Mukuhlani declined to comment after several calls and messages to him.

Prior to that, the cricket board spokesperson also turned down Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

Zimbabwe’s wins over the much stronger and more fancied India and South Africa at the 1999 World Cup were largely responsible for the rise in popularity of the game in the country among the majority black population.

Youth hit hard

While Streak said reducing the number of teams at the World Cup will affect the sport on the global level, the failure to qualify is set to have serious repercussions on young cricketers in the country.

“Not qualifying was a huge blow,” said Streak, who captained Zimbabwe at the 2003 World Cup and is considered one of his country’s greatest cricketers.

“Every player wants to play in the World Cup. Look at Blessing Muzarabani. Because we didn’t qualify, it was an easy decision for him to give up international cricket to go and play county [in the UK] .”

Muzarabani, a 21-year-old serious fast-bowling prospect for Zimbabwe who was being nurtured under Streak in the national side, quit international cricket to sign a three-year Kolpak deal with Northamptonshire.

The lanky paceman’s representatives admitted the decision to leave Zimbabwe was driven by concerns over money and game-time following the national team’s World Cup miss.

“I moved here because it was clear we weren’t going to have a lot of international fixtures,” Muzarabani told Al Jazeera from the UK. “I felt I was at a stage and age in my career where I needed to be playing consistent top-class cricket throughout the year. That was definitely not going to be the case in Zimbabwe.”

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